Live Active Cultures 

'Tis the season again already? I confess I'm one of those schmucks standing astride the calendar shouting, "Stop!" Call me a Scrooge, a stick-in-the-mud, a stiff-necked Semite. But I miss the days when the Xmas season didn't start until after Santa's sleigh slid down Sixth Avenue on Thanksgiving. And as a writer I'd like at least a couple-week breather after Halloween before I have to drag my holiday puns back out. But when the Council of 101 bids you attend the 23rd inauguration of the Festival of Trees, I guess you go no matter what week it is.

Council of who? Festival of what? A shadowy star chamber out of Tolkien hasn't summoned me, though you'll be forgiven for thinking my column has fallen into fantasy fiction. The Council of 101 is actually the 44-year-old civic organization founded "to further the cultural development and appreciation of the visual arts," aka fund the Orlando Museum of Art. The name refers to the number of "active" members; add in "associate" and "sustaining" members and there are several times that amount contributing to the $300,000-plus per year raised for OMA operations. Raising that purse are two annual events: the Antiques Show & Sale (entering its 28th edition in February) and the Festival of Trees, which opened Nov. 13.

The Festival of Trees, which runs through Sunday, Nov. 22, fills almost the entire museum, and for $10 ($6 per kid) you can wander through gallery after gallery of the most baroque Christmas decor money can buy. The centerpieces are 40-odd trees and "vignettes," each elaborately adorned by a different sponsor, including Barnie's Coffee & Tea Company, Tommy Bahama and the YMCA. Hallways are hung heavy with wreaths and winking with LED illumination; hallways are laden with gargantuan gingerbread houses (featuring a couple of national award-winners by Ashley Howard of Winter Springs) and miniature snow-capped villages. I didn't even fully explore the over-the-top table settings donated by Bed Bath & Beyond and Bloomies or the "going green" outdoor holiday garden.

What this weekend's visitors won't experience is the top-shelf treatment afforded guests of the $100-per-person opening affair, like me. It started with the complimentary valet parking, which monopolized the entire Loch Haven Park lot (guess any actors needing to get to the Shakes were just screwed). I walked the red carpet past the improvising Voci dancers and into the museum rotunda (dominated by light-laden palm trees), and made a beeline for the first of several ABC Fine Wine & Spirits-sponsored open bars. Some form of food was never more than 20 paces away; savory standouts included Levan's Catering lamb chops with mushroom risotto and the stellar Arthur's Fine Gourmet Catering shrimp-and-grits martini. For desert, James Guillery from Planet Hollywood Orlando put Top Chef to shame with liquid-nitrogen-cooled pumpkin ice cream.

Non-VIPs also won't get to enjoy the expert entertainment host Debi Casullo of Southern Hospitality Services introduced on opening night. The Orlando Philharmonic's Marimba Trio (Carl Rendek, Mark Goldberg, Chuck Riegel) and members of the University of Florida Opera Theatre performed carols in the lobby alongside Robin Stamper's concert piano, while the Orlando Ballet was screened on video in the auditorium. Unfortunately, most of the upper-crust attendees didn't get it either. Florida Symphony Youth Orchestra's violin soloist Caitlin Pequignot and Orlando Shakespeare Theater's Every Christmas Story Ever Told cast (Mark Lainer, Mike Gill and Timothy Williams) both performed beneath Chihuly's Seussian sculpture to a frustratingly inattentive audience. I saw more interest in the automated player piano — keys moving by themselves in eerie Haunted Mansion fashion following the phantom fingers of Scott Joplin and Billy Joel — than in any of the live artists.

I hate to look a gift horse in the mouth, especially since the organizers are evidently so altruistic, and I ingested my share of gratis Jack-and-ginger, but that seemed symbolic of the event. How many of those glitterati sipping champagne and bidding on silent auction items also support grass-roots Orlando artists trying to stay afloat financially year-round? Mostly, I fear for the children whose only visit to the art museum might be when there isn't any art to see, only gaudy tributes to the commercialized consumption. For once, the fabulous philanthropist Harriett Lake's signature outrageous headwear was less excessive than most of the exhibits. IKEA and Docking Bay 94's toy-decked trees made me smile, but they were the exception; one look at the pink Parisian monstrosity marked "reserved for Toulouse-Lautrec" would have made any bite-sized Bohemian barf.

In my hometown, a similar seasonal showcase was standard in the local mall, down to the "Toyland Town" kiddie gift shop where I bought a $3 wind-up mouse for the cats. OMA's installation is a big-budget arts and crafts exhibition married to the Cracker Barrel gift shop, turning the museum into a classier cousin of the new flea market in the old Dixie Stampede spot. Ho, ho, ho ….


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